The Video Essay: A New Way to Say (with John Bresland)

categories: Cocktail Hour / Movies / Table For Two: Interviews


John Bresland


John Bresland found me on Facebook a few months ago to ask if I’d want to take part in a video project for TriQuarterly Online.  Yes, of course.  Now he’s completed it, it’s up and running, and you can find it here.  But before you do that, let’s ask John a few questions:

Bill: Could you describe the project?

John: TriQuarterly is hosting a suite of video essays built around the still image. We basically set out to scare the bejesus out of writers by altering the rules of literary engagement. No printed words, just voice. And no continuous video, just a static image animated by thought. The idea was to get writers to explore the range of possibilities that digital media affords. In retrospect, it’s not a huge surprise that writers can make sense of the image. There’d be no French New Wave to speak of if not for Chris Marker and François Truffaut—two writers among many—getting fed up with movies. To them, everything in cinema looked like pictures of pictures. So they became filmmakers—filmmakers steeped in the literary tradition. So I guess, to answer your question, Bill, TriQuarterly took on the video essay project with the modest aspiration of reinventing American literary culture. Baby steps!

Bill:  What got you thinking about this project?

John: One of my least favorite films of all time is Letter to Jane by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin. A terrible film, but interestingly so. It runs close to an hour, and for most of that duration, the only image onscreen is a still-shot of Jane Fonda in Hanoi. While watching it, I became aware of the fact that when the visual component of a film is relatively static, there’s a reciprocal burden placed on the language. The language has to sing. The language in Jane does not sing. Neither does, for that matter, the language I encounter on audio tours when I go to museums. As contemporary Americans with our smartphone swagger, as digital people, we think of ourselves as image literate, but I can’t help wondering if  the opposite is true. To read an image, to really understand what a picture says, is not something that comes easy to a culture immersed in video and film. Today, when we see an image, we expect it to move. With this TriQuarterly collection of still-image essays, I wanted to see what would happen if some really talented writers stood on the shoulders of Godard and Gorin. Your essay, Starflower, is exactly what I’d hoped for—an image that takes on life through language. That starflower image is transformed by the voiceover.

Bill: Thanks, John.  I enjoyed making it, using my new video camera to record the voiceover, editing it a little on Final Cut Pro.  The flower I shot with just my little Canon point and shoot.  You did all the production work after that.  But let’s start at the beginning: How on earth did you find me?

John:  Your reputation preceded you. I came across your name in American Book Review, where Ned Stuckey-French had put together a beautiful compendium of video essays. From there, I went to your video essay collection, I Used to Play in Bands. One of the many things I like about that series is your willingness to address the camera directly, spontaneously, as a vulnerable human presence. The ability of film to convey human warmth is, I think, its greatest asset. When actors of a certain caliber—say, Meryl Streep or Johnny Depp—appear on film, even a so-so film, they can express the emotional truth of a moment so fully that they’re not only interesting to watch, but deeply affecting. As an engine of emotion, no other medium surpasses film. It’s equally true that, as a conveyance for thought, nothing surpasses language.

Bill:  Tell us about the other videos and filmmakers in the piece.

John:  I think all four essays, taken together, represent some of the more satisfying contours of creative nonfiction. With “You Are Here,” Angele Mears pulls off what is largely a meditative essay, an homage to William Gass and—roughly in equal parts—Sasha Grey, formerly an adult film actress. Meditative essays can generate unbearable tensions, not on the level of plot, but in the way an author confronts some difficult question. With Fifty Shades of Grey as her cultural backdrop, Mears wonders whether women are allowed to be, in her words, “hungry and filthy and undamaged about it.” On the lyric side of the genre, Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s “The Lightning” is a master-class not just in the writing of poetry, but in the voicing of it. Wilkinson’s something of a ringer, of course—he’s the editor of The Volta, and has worked extensively with visual forms. I’m reminded, while watching “The Lightning” of poetry’s origin as a form that predates literacy. It was a way of remembering. With “Beatles Girl Where Have You Gone” Joe Bonomo makes his first video essay, and I don’t think he’d fault me for seeing it in the tradition of the New Journalists. He uses an image from an old Beatles coffee table book—the image of a teenage girl in sodden collapse, an image which has haunted him over the years—and animates it with a meditation on photography and memory. Bonomo also has a great website, “No Such Thing As Was,” which is where I first saw his writings on that Beatles Girl image. And you, Bill, your “Starflower” moves fluidly between memoir and nature writing. In light of the emotional truth of that essay, though, it feels small to speak of genre at all. Still, my inner genre-priest gave this collection his blessing.

Bill: Tell us about your own filmmaking.

John:  I can tell you that when I made my first video essay twenty years ago, I didn’t think it would ever be seen by anybody outside my college classroom in Iowa. At the time where was no literary venue that could handle video, or would even want to. But now they’re springing up all over. Blackbird, Ninth Letter, Requited, The Fiddleback. Wag’s Review. The Volta. Born magazine. What surprised us at TriQuarterly, I think, was that the inaugural video essay collection that ran last January was the most visited page in the magazine, by far.

In my own work, I try to be mindful of something I read in The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts. He describes the act of reading so perfectly: “We don’t just read the words, we dream our lives in their vicinity.” He’s talking about the magic of reading, how readers co-create meaning. I don’t believe that readerly magic can be replicated in any other medium. But I do think a hell of a lot more space can be made in filmmaking for the viewer’s imagination.

In a video essay I made this year with Brian Bouldrey, “Hook,” he relates in the voiceover a rather painful anecdote about the time he went to a park and took delight in watching two children play. At some point, his enjoyment causes two mothers to grow suspicious, which kills him a little bit. The temptation, I think, in a visual medium is to illustrate narrative such as this literally: we see Bouldrey in the park, we see the nervous mothers herding their young, etc.. But I think—I hope—Brian and I found a way to preserve the viewer’s imaginative space in that scene by letting the language occupy center stage.

Bill:  Tell us about TriQuarterly online.

John:  A couple years ago, when TriQuarterly made the leap to digital, I think there was shared sense that poetry, fiction and nonfiction—the classic print genres—would continue to flourish. Millions of iPad and Kindle users can’t be wrong. But it was also clear that digital technology could shape those genres, turn them into something surprising and new. The video essay is one step in that direction. If other writers or filmmakers out there are feeling the itch, we sure hope they contact us. If a writer has a well-developed proposal for a video essay, or has some interesting video footage she wants to marry to a text but doesn’t know how to proceed, I’m happy to work with them to help develop a finished piece.

Bill:  Well, I can attest that you’re a pleasure to work with, and a good teacher, too, not only a producer.  Let’s hear from readers.  Viewers.  Or, um, listeners.     Here’s the project again.

And here are some more John Bresland videos.

Follow me on Twitter, what d’ya say?  @billroorbach

  1. TQO writes:

    Great piece, we’ll link to it via our Tumblr!